Home Living in South Africa House & Home Getting a South African SIM card or mobile phone
Last update on June 17, 2020

Stay connected with friends back at home and newfound companions by ensuring you get a suitable mobile phone in South Africa. This guide includes information about South African mobile numbers, mobile networks, international SIM cards and more.

If you want to get set up with a South African SIM card or mobile phone, you will be pleased to know that telecommunications in the country is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. According to data produced by mobile networks in South Africa, there are more active South African SIM cards than landlines.

It is estimated that around 60% of the country use their cell phone in South Africa to access the internet. As a consequence, wif-fi connections are widely available in cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels, shopping malls and business centres.

Whilst there are several deals for cell phones in South Africa for expats and travellers, it is advisable to familiarise yourself with your options prior to travelling. Otherwise, you may find you cannot use your smartphone in South Africa. In this day and age, getting a South African mobile phone could be seen to be of equal importance to setting up utilities such as water and gas.

To help you, this guide explains everything you need to know about using a mobile phone in South Africa, including how to buy a South African SIM card, deals for cell phones in South Africa and which companies offer the cheapest mobile data in South Africa.

Mobile networks in South Africa

The first step to getting set up with a South African SIM card or mobile phone is choosing a mobile phone operator. The five main operators in South Africa are Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and 8ta, and Virgin Mobile, although some cross-border companies such as AT&T are attempting to establish themselves as key contenders as well.

Coverage and reception are excellent countrywide, particularly in urban areas. If you do plan to venture from the beaten track, you may not be able to get a signal, but in general, connectivity is very good.

South African mobile number

There are two alternatives to buying a South African SIM card. The first one is with a company called B4I Travel which has deals with Vodacom. There are several cell phone deals available all of which include international calls.

This option enables you to receive a South African mobile number to give to friends and family before your travel. However, you will not get the SIM beforehand. You have to collect it from the airport upon arrival.

Your other option is to rent a phone from the airport – also in a Vodacom or Cell C network. Rentals include 30-day bundles on iPhone handsets for reasonable rates and are the better option if you do not intend to make international calls.

The cheapest cell phones in South Africa

Mobile networks in South Africa typically offer free smartphones when you sign up to a contract. However, the majority of South Africans prefer prepaid SIM cards and take advantage of free messaging services to contact friends and family.

In a survey to determine which mobile phone operators offer the best cell phone deals in South Africa, Cell C and Telkom Mobile came out on top whilst Vodacom – the biggest mobile network in South Africa – were among the worst providers.

As in other countries, mobile operators in South Africa offer airtime deals and data bundles on the prepaid SIM cards and contracts. Prepaid SIM cards have limited data usage, but for travellers that do not intend to use your mobile phone a great deal whilst in South Africa can benefit by using data usage often offered for free in hotels.

Buying a South African SIM card

Mobile operators in South Africa work on GSM networks. If your phone is not compatible with a GSM network, you will need to buy a new handset once you arrive in the country. Cell phone prices in South Africa are pretty reasonable if you are happy to use a low-budget phone.

Before you can use a South African SIM card, you will also need to have an unlocked phone. If you are on an existing mobile phone contract, it is advisable to check with your mobile phone company about their unlocking policy.

If you currently use a pay-as-you-go smartphone, you shouldn’t have any problems purchasing a SIM card in South Africa for your existing phone.

You can buy South African SIM cards from convenience stores, supermarkets, mobile phone shops or online directly from the mobile phone operator of your choice.

Cell phones in South Africa

Furthermore, to buy a SIM card in South Africa you have to register the SIM with the telecommunications regulatory body RICA (Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication).

You, therefore, have to provide a form of valid identification (ID) such as your passport or National ID card together with the address where you are staying in South Africa on a formal sheet of paper with the hotel logo. If you are staying in private accommodation you will need your contract and if you are staying with a friend you will need an affidavit from the owner or tenant declaring that you are staying at the address on a temporary basis.

If you do not want to go through the hassle of registering a South African SIM card, the best option is to rent or buy a prepaid SIM from B4I Travel South Africa as mentioned above. These services may be a little more expensive but are still very affordable if you are only staying for a short visit and do not intend to use your mobile phone that much whilst in South Africa.

Pre-paid cell phones in South Africa

Prepaid SIM cards are by far the most attractive option in South Africa with the locals. Almost 90 percent of new business is pay-as-you-go. Both airtime and data bundles are available and top-up cards are readily available from mobile shops, convenience stores, supermarkets and airports.

One thing to watch out for with prepaid SIM cards is that your credits expire after 30 days of purchase whether you have used them all or not. Phone calls between mobile owners on the same network are generally cheaper.

Arranging a contract with a South African mobile operator

If you are a heavy internet user on your mobile phone, a mobile plan offering unlimited data is your best option. If you also purchase a mobile phone handset, the cost of the phone is included in your monthly payments. This is the best way to get the cheapest smartphones in South Africa.

Mobile phone contracts in South Africa are limited to 24 months. It is also not unusual for mobile phone operators in South Africa to state somewhere in the contract that monthly charges may increase at any time.

Although mobile phone rates are not increased very often, there is a good chance that at some point during your 24-month term that mobile phone charges will go up and you suddenly find yourself paying an extra R20 or more a month on your mobile contract.

Unlike most countries, the tariffs on cell phone contracts in South Africa are more expensive than prepaid SIM cards. For the latest deals on cellphone contracts in South Africa, check out this comparison website.

Alternative deals for mobile phones in South Africa

Because RICA has such strict rules about purchasing South African SIM cards – particularly if you do not have a permanent address yet – the easiest option to get hooked up to a mobile operator in South Africa is to rent a handset.

Renting a mobile phone in South Africa is incredibly easy – and is especially convenient for short-term travellers or if your existing mobile phone is not compatible with GSM networks. There are several mobile rental shops throughout the country. One of the most trusted and reliable is Cellucity.

You can rent a mobile phone in South Africa from any of the leading mobile companies. All you have to do is register for a handset before you travel or ask at the airport once you touch down in SA. All you have to do is leave a security deposit and you’re good to go.

Mobile phones in South Africa

Rented phones have the SIM card and credits pre-installed and usage is valid for up to 30 days. Depending on which bundle you go for and the amount you use your phone, you shouldn’t have to pay additional charges.

However, the cheapest smartphone bundles only allow 500MB of online data so if you go wild on the internet you could find your limit is wiped out pretty quickly.

One of the advantages of a mobile phone rental is you never run out of credit. However, any additional charges your run up paid when you drop the phone off. And you’re not able to check data usage. However, call charges and SMS are still between 300-400% cheaper than using the hotel phone.

Understanding a South African mobile number

Mobile phone numbers in South Africa start with either 06, 07 or 08 depending on which part of the country you are in. For a definitive guide on South African mobile numbers, check out this list.

For outgoing calls, you need to dial 00 plus the international code and area code of the recipient, followed by the phone number.

To receive incoming calls on your mobile phone, the dialling code for South Africa is +27 followed by the area code you purchased the South African SIM card.

South African SIM card for travellers

If you are moving to South Africa and plan to stay for a while or indefinitely, getting a South African SIM card or mobile phone is a better option than a landline. It may be worth investigating international SIM cards in South Africa.

Landlines can take a while to be installed and because they hooked up to an outdated infrastructure are not always reliable. In contrast, mobile phones in South Africa are reliable have good coverage and the rates are affordable.

You can also purchase packages that covering mobile phone usage and home internet whereby you can make international calls for free on a messaging app such as Skype, Messenger or WhatsApp.